Recent news stories have discussed the desire of some cities and counties to close their justice courts. These desires may be based on many factors. However, in some cases, local leaders have expressed concern that the courts are losing money.
As a justice court judge (not in one of the courts being affected), this concerns me. Courts are the third, co-equal branch of government, established by the Utah and U.S. constitutions to provide a forum for addressing grievances and protecting constitutional rights.
They exist to offer an absolutely essential service to citizens. Viewing courts as revenue generators undermines the role that courts play, as well as public confidence in the courts.
Utah has made great strides in recent years to improve not only the image, but the quality of justice courts. Reforms have included the way judges are selected, paid and retained. These reforms insulate the judge from pressure from city and county administration.
However, if municipalities view courts as revenue generators, and base decisions on that factor, individuals will continue to view justice courts with skepticism.
I am not suggesting any nefarious intent. Local leaders have the difficult task of balancing budgets, providing needed services and keeping taxes low. However, I am suggesting that as an essential, constitutionally required service, courts should not be viewed as just another government program where revenues and expenses dictate decisions.
Courts will inevitably generate revenue. As a society we have determined that fines are an appropriate punishment for violation of the law.
Most would agree that fines are preferable in many cases to jail time, or other possible sentences. In fact, the Uniform Fine/Bail Schedule established by the Utah Judicial Council states that, "The penalty for all public offenses should include a financial sanction as a minimum base from which the judge may determine the total sentence, dependent upon aggravating and/or mitigating circumstances of an individual case."
More importantly, individuals charged with violations of the law should, inasmuch as is possible, bear the expense of enforcement and administration. Fines also serve as punishment, as well as a disincentive to violate the law. However, just because courts do generate revenue does not mean that revenue should be a primary concern.
While the reality of budgets, revenues and other similar concerns will always be looked at, we should encourage local officials to base decisions on the quality of services (in this case, justice) being received, and not on the amount of revenue being generated.
Individuals should feel that they are being treated fairly and in accordance with the law, without worrying that the court or municipality is merely trying to raise revenue. If other factors dictate that a justice court should be closed, fine. But generation of revenue should not be one of those factors.
Paul C. Farr is a Justice Court judge serving the cities of Herriman, Lehi and Sandy. He is a graduate of the Brigham Young University law school and has been a member of the Utah State Bar since 2000.